GovernorMike Beebe (D)
SenatorsBlanche Lincoln (D)
Mark Pryor (D)
- 3 D, 1 R
Jutting out over the banks of the Arkansas River, in Little Rock’s Market District, is the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, home of the nation’s largest presidential library. It is a monument to the nation’s 42nd president, the most talented and accomplished politician produced by a small state that has produced more than its share of them. Bill Clinton’s presidential library is the first with electronic records as well as paper documents. In its alcoves are exhibits and electronic connections to what Clinton considers his greatest achievements, along with a treatment of “the politics of persecution,” his take on his impeachment. Clinton, a notoriously hearty eater, decreed that planners set aside space on the grounds for picnics and cookouts. He may not have returned to live in Arkansas after his presidency ended (eight other presidents also chose not return to their home states), but he is clearly regarded here and elsewhere as an Arkansan, a man whose eloquence and earthiness, outsized ambitions and overly visible faults, are redolent of the state from which he began his unlikely ascent to prominence. That rise has been on the whole a source of pride to Arkansans. For many of them, Clinton’s success wiped away the stain of Gov. Orval Faubus, whose disobedience of an order desegregating Little Rock’s Central High School prompted President Eisenhower to dispatch federal troops to enforce it in 1957.
Arkansas, like Clinton, began life without many advantages. In area, it’s the smallest state between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. In population, it’s the smallest state in the South. It has not been blessed with any great natural resources, unless you count flame-retarding bromine, of which the state produces half the world supply. And it’s home to no major industry. Arkansas is the land left over when Louisiana and Missouri were carved out of the Louisiana Purchase and what is now Oklahoma was fenced off as Indian Territory. Its first two senators could not agree on how to pronounce the state’s name, but since 1881 it’s been illegal to call it ar-KAN-sas. Settled by poor farmers with large families, few slaves, and little cash, Arkansas has had no Atlanta or Dallas or even Memphis as a focal point of growth. Arkansas consistently has the second- or third-lowest income levels and percentage of college graduates of any state. However, its economy is far more vibrant and productive than it was in the Faubus years half a century ago. Northwest Arkansas, around Bentonville and Fayetteville, is a boom area, housing the headquarters of Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods, and J.B. Hunt trucking. Population growth has been rapid, with Wal-Mart leading the way. Food processing is a big business; so is the manufacturing of auto parts and medical and construction equipment, and the growing of federally subsidized rice and cotton. Oil is yet another source of wealth: In southern Arkansas, Murphy Oil promises to pay for college for graduates of El Dorado public schools.
Culturally, Arkansas is Jacksonian and religious, settled more by dirt farmers than plantation owners, people who are proud of their independence and willing to fight to maintain it. It is the birthplace of Pentecostal denominations. The Church of God in Christ was started in Little Rock in 1907, and the Assembly of God (now headquartered in Springfield, Mo.) in Hot Springs in 1914. The state has the highest married rate after heavily Mormon Utah and Idaho, but also a high divorce rate, as highlighted in 2005 when Gov. Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist minister, declared “a state of marital emergency” in Arkansas. Huckabee, who, like Clinton, grew up in Hope, was a Republican candidate for president in 2008.
As the late political scientist Diane Blair noted, Arkansas never had a power elite of great plantation owners or economic robber barons. That has left it a heritage without honored traditions or tight standards, but it has also made Arkansas a place of great opportunities, where talented people can move up fast and amass huge fortunes with breakthrough ideas. Sam Walton believed that rural and small-town America would support a chain of giant discount stores that, through tough bargaining with vendors and ultraquick distribution, could undersell competitors. Walton was the richest American when he died in April 1992, and Wal-Mart today is the largest private employer in the world, with a payroll of 1.8 million people. Jack Stephens and his brother, Witt, both now deceased, started an investment banking house in Little Rock specializing in underwriting municipal bonds and investing in businesses that are a mix of private enterprise, government subsidies, and public regulation. They amassed a billion-dollar fortune. Don Tyson took his father’s chicken business and made it one of the biggest food producers in America. J.B. Hunt established his trucking empire in Arkansas. These business giants have cultivated a down-home, laid-back style, but they have also skillfully united their interests with those of the state’s politicians.
Politically, Arkansas was long solidly Democratic, with Republican pockets in the mountains of the northwest. For years, it produced Democratic politicians who accumulated great seniority and power in Washington—longtime House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills; Sens. John McClellan and William Fulbright, who represented the state for a total of 65 years from the 1940s to the 1970s; and Sens. Dale Bumpers and David Pryor, who served a total of 42 years from the 1970s to the 1990s. The state’s current 5-1 Democratic congressional delegation started off in the late 1990s with little seniority, but it has the potential to prosper in Washington. Republicans have won top races occasionally: Winthrop Rockefeller Sr., was elected governor in 1966 and 1968, following Faubus, and Frank White beat Clinton in 1980. Huckabee took over as governor after Democrat Jim Guy Tucker was convicted and forced from office in 1996. Huckabee was re-elected in 1998 and 2002. But none founded a political dynasty, and each was replaced by a Democrat. Booming northwest Arkansas, heavily Republican, tends to dominate that party’s primaries. So Arkansas, which gave George W. Bush solid majorities in 2000 and 2004 and John McCain one of his best showings in 2008, remains at the state and congressional level one of the most Democratic states.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
Arkansas voted for the winners of nine consecutive elections, then for the loser in 2008. It voted 53% for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 54% for him in 1996. Without Clinton at the top of the ticket, it voted less Democratic in subsequent years—46% for Al Gore in 2008, 44% for John Kerry in 2004, and 39% for Barack Obama in 2008. Arkansas, like other states with Jacksonian roots, seemed unenchanted with Obama. At the same time, it showed genuine affection for Hillary Rodham Clinton, notwithstanding her relocation to New York. She trounced Obama in Arkansas’s presidential primary on Super Tuesday, 70%-26%, her best margin of victory in any state contest. Polls looking ahead to the general election suggested that Clinton might well have won Arkansas against John McCain or any other Republican candidate, except perhaps former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who captured the state’s 2008 Republican presidential primary easily.
Arkansas’s presidential primary used to be in May, and it attracted little attention. The Legislature in 2005 voted to hold it on February 5, which in 2008 came on Super Tuesday. Arkansas Democrats tried to get the Democratic National Committee to make it one of the first four states to vote, but the national Democrats instead chose South Carolina because of its higher African-American percentage and its tradition of early Republican primaries.
|111th Congress: 3 D, 1 R|
In April 2001, the Democratic Legislature slightly adjusted the boundaries of Arkansas’s four congressional districts to meet the equal-population standard. Because it didn’t split counties, the Legislature’s plan had the highest population difference in the nation between the districts—6,698 people—but it also contained a backup provision: If a court found the plan invalid, it would be repealed and 4,400 voters would be shifted between districts. A court challenge never materialized, however. Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee, lacking the votes to prevent an override of his veto, let the plan become law without his signature. Arkansas is expected to retain its four districts in the reapportionment following the 2010 census, and because the Legislature is likely to remain overwhelmingly Democratic, there seems little prospect for much change in district boundaries beyond what is required by the equal-population standard.